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Allan Gurganus

 Allan Gurganus (1947) was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina to a teacher and businessman. He first trained as a painter, which helped him later illustrate three limited editions of his fiction. He turned to writing during his three-year stint onboard the USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War. Gurganus subsequently graduated from Sarah Lawrence College where he worked with Grace Paley, and obtained an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (in 1974) where his mentors were Stanley Elkin and John Cheever. It was Cheever who, without Gurganus’s knowledge, sent his short story Minor Heroism to The New Yorker thus turning it into the author’s first published work of fiction.

Gurganus has also taught creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (in 1989 and 2010) as well as at Stanford, Duke, and Sarah Lawrence. He lives in a small town in North Carolina, where he writes and gardens daily. He told an interviewer in 2005, “Novelists don’t really start life till turning forty. By that measure, as an artist, I am just eighteen. I have only just begun…”

Gurganus’s best known work is his 1989 debut novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which was on the New York Times Best Seller list for eight months. It won the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and sold over four million copies. It was made into a CBS television play, and was adapted for a one-woman Broadway play in 2003, starring Ellen Burstyn.

Gurganus's other works include White People, a collection of short stories and novellas; Plays Well With Others, a novel; and The Practical Heart, a collection of four novellas. HIs novel-in-progress will be second in The Falls Trilogy that commenced with Widow. It is titled The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.

Gurganus was one of the eloquent speakers for the 50th Anniversary of the Writer’s Workshop in 1986. His speech appeared in the commemorative book Seems Like Old Times: Iowa Writers’ Workshop Golden Jubilee (ed.: Ed Dinger, Iowa City, Iowa, 1986) under the title “The Jubilee.”

From "The Jubilee"

"Once upon a time at Hamburg Inn number two (or was it Hamburg Inn number one) breakfast cost you sixty-nine cents. We’re talking 1974, and you got your two eggs any style, wheat toast paddled with butter, two pretty if chemical jellies, hash browns done al dente, and something called bottomless coffee. My great teachers at the workshop were: John Cheever, Stanley Elkin, Stephen Becker, Jack Leggett, John Irving and Miki, chief waitress at Hamburg Inn number two, or was it number one. Such are the caprices of memory.

I had arrived from a semi-self-congratulatory school in the North East and, at 23, was as sophisticated as only an undergraduate in commuting distance of Manhattan weekends can be. Basted in Dickens, Chekov, James and Proust, my idea of fiction hovered somewhere between Europe and the 19th century, my own morbid sensitivity and a Bloomsbury dream of perfect company that would be as intellectually erotic, that would say funny things, have just enough money not to mention it, enjoy frequent sex and even more frequent publication and, of course, look good.

Then the plane landed amongst corn, more of it than seemed either possible or necessary. I arrived overdressed. Some things never change.

I had been told that the Middle West grew doughy, deacon-like persons, devoid of eccentricity, slaves to duty.

In Iowa City, the cab passed a service station whose front yard was planted with huge sunflowers and, again, corn, stalks eight feet high. Was this a joke, a pun? I didn't understand. - Arrived at my Victorian boarding house, I opened the bathroom door, I noticed a handsome young woman seated on the commode. She said quite plainly," We share. I don't know you. But as you see, I'm here just now."

I said, hi, closed the door, and fell against a wall.

Sharing bathrooms with strangers – very un-Bloomsbury.

All I'll say about the 70s being the 70s is that they came between the 60s, which you have heard too much about, and the 80s, which for better or worse, we’re in – so in – and that whatever we did in the 70s, we probably would have done – in different hairstyles and bellbottoms, in other decades, using different reasons to explain ourselves. Or maybe I just think that because the 70s were, like – so … seventies, right? But let that go.

Porn movies were being shot in my boarding house’s front apartment. Hogging the bathroom, trim young people applied body makeup from gallon jugs. I hoped to be asked over, if only as a consultant. I was not. I found our white bathroom specked with flesh-colored droplets. My education cranked up. My conception of the Middle West began to thaw.

On Iowa Avenue, an old man walked his young cat on a leash. But the cat went everywhere cats do – under fences, beneath cars – and you soon saw: a young cat out walking its old man.

My fellow students looked wild and ready – but decent compared to how the town was acting up. I sensed there was more English and Philosophy jostling on the streets that in a building named for English and Philosophy.

And then I met Miki. A type-A waitress, short, Mason-jar shaped, gloomy, brilliantly efficient, semi-mean. I had seen her make younger serving persons weep behind the coffee tanks. Miki wore hush-puppy shoes stained nurse-white against their will, she had wing glasses and, under a double-hairnet, pin-curls even then long out-of-date. She carried 12 (count them) steaming coffee mugs, toted around the usual 10 fingers. Not at gunpoint would Miki call anybody Sugar.

I settled – dressed down now – on a counter stool, I ordered the same breakfast three days running. Morning four, it happened, over the heads of others fueling up for work, Miki called to me, “The usual?” I nodded, hard. “Usual, Mik.” (I was, as my grandmother might say, “entering in.”)

True, a week later, eating the usual, I had un-monogamous thoughts about French toast – but I stuck with my standard fare. Otherwise, the usual would not be.

This was to become a great discovery. It is hard to explain how the bullying reigning waitress provided an algebra I needed. I began to wonder about Miki – whose last name I never knew. When she dreamed, if she dreamed – did she dream about fishing, about waitressing in a better place, growing strawberries, did she dream she was the mother of three, headed home to cook supper, late in her Volvo? What was Miki’s hidden poem? Everybody's got one the more unlike me she seemed, the more I needed her news. I could not dismiss her. Can you name one rounded sympathetic working person in the novels of Virginia Woolf? – I’d arrived with some elitist notion of separation between artist and subject matter. Now I found Us and Them becoming uncomfortably synonymous.

At local thrift shops, I perfected my Iowa disguise. I got a battered green Schwinn and – with a story freshly finished – I’d pedal it to a friend’s place. While he read mine indoors, I paced the porch like an expectant father. And friends rushed theirs to me. We were entranced with each other. We were our news. Talking shop about Kafka, we ate truck-stop breakfasts late at night. We took certain drugs, we fell in love with each other and out again and ended up with broken hearts – but, my God, what subject matter.

A vague young woman from my boarding house explained: She lived here to be around the school’s symphony conductor – a man she had never said one word to, not allowed. She didn't need to. She attended all his rehearsals. She hid at the back of Hancher Auditorium – picking up the conductor’s every in-joke and lover’s thought beamed her way – via transistors cleverly implanted in her molars. “We all have a mission here,’ she smiled. I nodded. – I began to believe her.

"The usual?," Miki called as I brushed snow from my hair. It was already January. (Such hair I had then, and down to here.) “Usual,” said I, imagining all the menus banqueting in her head, forty years’ worth. Maybe even Flannery O’Connor’s yen for a morning’s dry toast, served Eucharist-plain, with a large side of Tabasco. (I just made that up.)

The coffee mug clomped before me, not a drop spilled as Miki, oracle, when, “Guess you heard.”

Miki was, like Time itself: an express making only local stops.

“No,” I said. “Haven't ... heard.” You had to say that to get the stuff out of her. First you admitted not being from around here, then – an artist, having humbled you, Miki – as folks will – told:

“Not heard? Seems – man down to Aetna Realty. Working late. Stepped into the elevator. Nothing there. Fell clear down the shaft. Busted both legs … compound. Lay in the grease and gunk for nine hours. Janitor heard the screaming. Man's a regular. Always since there not two stools from your favorite. He’s: American cheese omelette. He’s hold the fries. He’s hot tea, plenty of lemon on the side. He’s danish. – Not much of a tipper, short-fused fellow. Still … wouldn't wish that on somebody else's dog.”

A night watchman, just off duty at the gas plant, slumped onto the stool beside me. Usual, George? Guess you heard. No? Where you been? Man down the Aetna Realty. Working late. Stepped in the elevator. Nothing there. Fell clear …”

Then – happy to be sitting among other non-Bloomsbury workers – (me, headed to my little Hermes portable – somebody had to do it) – an idea opened like the morning’s first sweet caffeine: Chekhov had taught me back East, Workshop classes showed me and now Miki reiterated, but she did it best: “the usual” isn't really.

“The usual” – two words – must mean something different for every customer.

It was definitely snowing outside Hamburg Inn number one or two. I felt weightless with the heaviness of my own discovery. I was really young then. We all were.

– Like everybody, I believed I was the first.

Returning in 1986, I planned to walk to every house I had ever rented (or – thanks to love affairs however brief – spent even one night in). And I did. – Which is why I came a day and a half early.

I had a Miki fantasy: I stepped in after 12 years’ absence. She’d frown at me over today's young customers. Then something would unlatch behind her glasses and, over other workers’ heads, over a dozen years, she says, “The usual?” I nod. Like nodding to the world. Very un-Bloomsbury, nodding greedily to the word “usual.”

The new waitress told me. Miki died last year – died after falling behind her counter here while serving others omelets and dark news. For a while there, about her, strangers, on these stools must’ve muttered to each other, “I guess you heard … Miki.”

“Work-shop” – a shop where work is done.

I was a worker, in thrift-store coveralls, set at her counter among other laborers – no better or worse than me – all of us lined there in a row like … corn or something. I loved Iowa City then. It and my writing were the same things. I loved my friends and their work, equally. I loved being so young and having so far to go and believing I could manage it.

For me then, “meltdown” might’ve meant some Hamburg Inn blue plate special. Reagan was a toothless has-been B actor. I’m lucky, still alive. We all know how many aren’t. Those of us left are still trying, aren’t we?

Once we wanted to get into this school, and we did.

Now we wanted to come back here, and we have.

We are the lucky ones – despite all our whining about grounds and jobs and who got what. Writing is still manual labor. We must take our clue from Miki: in it, not just for the tips – but for the job’s sake. Here we are now – a Bloomsbury of the Prairie – only better. I glance around. We look okay. And yet, I ask myself, if we’re doing fairly well – then why is the world such a mess? How do we get the two more lined up – us, its chroniclers, and it, our breakfast bread-and-butter?

To the workers in our field, still waiting to learn to breathe then speak then sing – I’d say, when in doubt about subject matter, common geography, a place to start – begin with “right here.” The truth is always local first – and then, if true enough, it spreads. Settle in a room and read to one another. Read talkingly and – afterwards – about the poem or story – talk readingly.

Okay, change from mimeo to Xerox. But keep it real untechnological. Keep the simple, ordinary and decent at your workshop table’s very, very center. Maybe that will save us.

Miki? I think we are ready to order. You – total memory of menus, you – newsworthy in the Iowa ballroom tonight – we don't ask for eternity. But we’ve had 50 years of something good here.

So, could you, please, bring us 50 more of the same, please?

Oh yes,

the usual."

Allan Gurganus

Iowa House, May 29, 1986

Notes About Learning at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

(Note from the author: The event that the text above ('The Jubilee') was spoken at and the 2011 Workshop's celebration are 25 years apart. That is why I asked Gurganus not only for permission to use his 25-year old speech--which he granted wholeheartedly--but also to write something afresh. The result was these "Notes About Learning ... ," for which Gurganus asked--and was wholeheartedly granted--for permission to be used as his speech at the 75th Workshop Jubilee. To my comment that he didn't tell how one teaches character, the compulsory ingredient in the recipe for becoming a great author, he replied: "The tests are waiting everywhere to make us better people! Without those, there is no subject matter, no human resistance, no true kindness. To simply keep writing, however badly, seems to require a certain stamina or a gift for delusion."

We're full of gratitude to Gurganus for the wit and passion with which he helped in the creation of his profile.)

How much do you care about your prose style, about adding your inch onto that gigantic temple called World Literature? Enough to survive consecutive Iowa winters?

I’d grown up in the South where ten minutes’ snow emptied schools, caused car wrecks. I had never seen white stuff falling atop all its own earlier attempts. Blizzards made my typewriter’s margin-settings come right out to the center of each page. There was nothing to do but perfect Narration and fall in love with someone ever-more-unsuitable.

My first apartment, at the far end of Iowa Avenue, was the former kitchen of a Victorian house. I’d rented it long-distance. On entering my new home, I stepped into its foyer. That turned out to be my whole apartment. I painted everything white before installing my Hermes manual typewriter. The dealer promised this was the very pistachio-green model Salinger used. (I’d chosen not to purchase the electric one. In the late 1960s, I still feared nuclear war. I pictured myself, living in a woods even snowier than Iowa City, typing civilization’s final insights before radiation-sickness stopped me cold.)

I soon recognized: Workshop students mainly teach each other. You learn to rewrite while rereading the best possible books. You find your peers’ work that most excites you about yours. You help your friends revise their work while prescribing whatever masterful fiction might help most. They do the same for you. It’s like tickling. Only someone else can manage to set you off.

Europeans often express contempt for America’s advanced degrees in writing. And yet, oddly, each foreign capital boasts its own ancient Musical Conservatory and Art Academy. Why should only the arts of musical and pictorial composition strike Continentals as teachable? How Camus-alone must a writer be in order to commit a novel?

Two years’ daily contact with fellow students provided traction, continuity. Faculty seemed ever-changing as the Iowa weather. Even so, I spent my first year studying with John Cheever then, with Stanley Elkin. The two swore they respected each other’s work. Beyond that, they could hardly have been more different.

Valiant, banished from his family back east, Cheever wore frayed blue Brooks Brothers’ button-downs. He favored size-six Weejuns. A small man, perfectly formed, he resembled a schoolboy subjected to some leather tannery, hickory-cured. Then in his early sixties, he appeared permanently tanned by exterior cigarette smoke and illimitable Scotch whiskey, sipped. He was suave then simple, a snob but a good sport. His New England accent luffed salt-air. His As hoisted even broader sails than Katharine Hepburn’s. Cheever conducted his writing class like some cocktail party where zingers are served in lieu of peanuts. (Real cocktails’ lubrication might’ve helped loosen our classroom conversations.) “`It was one of those parties where’… Allan, give us something pithy enough to finish this line into being a worthy fictional opening. Now…” John offered us prompts for fiction. He expected this weekly short story along with whatever else we wrote. One suggestion was clearly meant to upstage any possible response: “Write a love letter from a burning building.” Surely a poem unto itself.

Stanley Elkin presented a grouchy façade to shield his self-admitted sentimentality. His looks were famously anonymous, his mind terrifyingly swift, specific. Elkins’ standards, unremitting, could become hilarious. His favorite subject was obsession: Stanley had no choice. In class his criticism rejoiced in the confrontational. Stanley hated inert verbs, loathed slack construction, reviled careless grammar. You saw him holding a really bad story at arms’ length; soon he’d touch only its margins. By class’s end he dangled the thing by its staple as it became a dead carp starting to smell. The student-author of one such story described his heroine as “the Queen of Laziness”. Stanley read aloud a few weak lines then barked, “You, sir, are the queen of laziness!” Today that might constitute harassment. For us, for Stanley, it just seemed quality control. Elkin’s class started with fifteen students plus five auditors milling in back. By week three, we were down to six. We sat nearer each other, for warmth and consolation. But those of us who stayed---we Darwinian survivors, adaptable, masochistic, note-taking---learned very fast. Stanley’s critical apparatus was infallible. He would dismantle your story then tell you which magazine would probably publish it, owing to which mistake by what weak-minded editor.

My classmates all seemed either brilliant or handsome or both. They included Joanne Meschery, Meredith Steinbach, Sarah Erwin, Richard Wiley, Robert Chibka, Richard Bausch, Barbara Grossman, Jane Smiley, Ron Hansen, and T. Corraghasen Boyle. I felt that, as artists, we grew separately but always in utter unison as well. Though writing requires taking large personal risks while faking absolute confidence, it is at best a communal enterprise. He or she who tells the story that might matter most to the most other people on the greatest number of levels, that person has won the race….for everybody.

I have returned to Iowa twice to teach. I came once in early 1989 and again during the winter of 2010.

You sometimes hear doctors on FM radio talkshows admitting they never knew what good doctoring was till---suddenly hospitalized themselves---- they encountered botched impersonal medical care. Only after they worked both sides of a bedside manner did they finally feel complete as healers. The same is true of my coming home to the Workshop. I imagined the teacher I wish I’d had. I tried becoming that guy. (Sometimes it failed, if you looked too much like the father of some one young writer. Nobody’s fault).

In advance I knew all student excuses. I recalled what dangerous attraction the term “writer’s block” holds for any chain-smoking, nocturnal, cat-owning twenty-two year old. But who needs such invented difficulty, when the actual un-blocked writing of consecutive narrative sentences is already so damned hard?

Since I’d only taught a Workshop class for one semester at a time, I naturally hoped to pass on everything I knew. (As fast as possible, please). This meant rushing into highly technical lore. To make things far harder, such required lore varies with every single student. Times, I felt like a violin coach on her first day at Julliard. Since, at such schools, there are fourteen hundred applicants to fill any twelve positions, you’re assured that every person in this room can at least play the damned fiddle. But the algebra of each pupil’s particular gift is what truly fascinates me.

We were assured as children that no two snowflakes look alike. How much more various are individual storytellers’ gifts and quirks? Getting into the varieties of student talent as fast as possible constitutes a time-pressured thrill akin to safe-cracking. Many of them believe they are good at some one thing (having been over-praised for it through high school then college). Such early affirmation is not always based in fact. Even so, a student admired for her dialogue can overnight be found writing plays. A student praised for his characters’ interiority can soon commit only encoded private stories akin to ingrown toenails. Still other young writers might be just emerging from some depression, a blunt force trauma or family divorce. Gasping, they’ve just re-arrived at the surface. They are holding whatever trophy they just managed to grab up off the ocean floor. This seems (to them) their next likely subject. But do they have the needed oxygen and perspective quite yet? Still others were born so talented they are like puppies chasing their own tails: much action, zero forward motion. Then begins the slow sweet untying of bad knots while re-fastening the truest of narrative ties. So much of learning means un-learning.

It consoles an older writer, one singularly well-taught by his elders, living long enough to become a veteran himself. Though silvering, he’s still adjudged sentient enough to possibly help a new crop of the gifted. Such a sweet homecoming. Comforting into the time-zone, the river-town, where one’s own prose was once heeded, well-tended, respected into being.

Without the Workshop, who (and where) would all of us be?

Bibliography

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a novel (1984)
White People, short stories (1990)
The Practical Heart, four novellas (1993 limited edition, 2001 trade edition)
Plays Well with Others, a novel (1997)

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Composition: Zlatko Anguelov